Take the Sting Out of Subscription Services Have you run into problems with software that charges on a subscription basis? Our tips can help keep unpleasant surprises to a minimum.

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If you're concerned about spyware ravaging your PC, you've probably considered--or purchased--a utility such as PC Tools' Spyware Doctor, which costs a reasonable $30.

But PC Tools automatically charges you another $30 every year thereafter, which came as a shock to Lorrie Price, a casino security worker in Atlantic City. A year after her purchase of Spyware Doctor, which she had paid for with a debit card, Price was surprised to receive e-mail from the company stating that her annual renewal fee had been debited from her checking account.

"This wouldn't be a problem, except that I wasn't informed [in advance that] the company was going to do so," Price says. "I was not notified of any renewal. I was not asked if I wanted a yearly renewal. I did not authorize any renewal, and I definitely did not authorize the company to access my checking account."

(Editor's note: PC Tools says it does send out advance notice close to renewal time, but Price told us that she never received such mail or found it in her spam filter.)

Welcome to Subscription Hell. These days a growing number of applications, utilities, and even games require you to fork out yearly or even monthly fees for the use of the software, updates, and/or technical support. Major antivirus packages have long charged annual fees for virus signature and other updates (and also nag you to buy upgrades), but other software types are moving to subscription pricing. For example, Cerulean Studios' Trillian Pro cross-platform instant messaging client charges $25 a year for tech support, forum access, and updates.

For many users, the problem lies not in paying a few bucks every year, but in managing subscriptions and understanding how they work. Then there's the matter of canceling an unwanted subscription, an option that software and service vendors don't always make easy. Here's how to avoid subscription surprises and deal with common problems.

Read the fine print: While no one likes plowing through page after page of legalese, doing so is the best way to uncover the terms of the subscription agreement.

In the case of Spyware Doctor, for example, you must click through to the checkout page to find the "Terms and Conditions of Purchase," but the pertinent details are spelled out near the top of the agreement: "If you are purchasing the Software on a subscription basis ... you agree to allow us to automatically extend your right to receive support and updates for successive periods equal to the length of the initial term, by directly charging your credit card or debiting your debit card prior to each anniversary of the date of purchase ..."

In other words, when you buy the software, you're also buying a subscription that automatically renews annually. PC Tools does not provide the option of limiting the subscription to a single period, either. Price admits that she never read the agreement, instead assuming that "any renewal would follow other subscriptions I've had: advance notice by e-mail and the option to renew or not."

Don't assume that one company's policies will emulate another's. Do take the time to read the license agreement so you don't get an unwelcome surprise 365 days later.

Tracking and Reminders
Keep good records: Many people simply forget that they've signed up for a subscription service, especially when it bills only annually. One way to keep track of your subscriptions is to create a basic spreadsheet with entries for each program and/or service, its billing cycle, the renewal policy (automatic or manual), and confirmations of payments made.

While you're at it, add billing (or cancellation) reminders to your calendar, or use an online service such as Google Calendar or Remember The Milk to send you e-mail reminders a week or two before a renewal comes up so you can decide whether to pay up or cancel.

Update your accounts: Much subscription grief arises from changes to your contact information and/or credit card. For example, if you change your e-mail address and don't update your subscription account accordingly, you won't receive a notification of an upcoming renewal. That could lead to an unwanted automatic renewal or an unexpected cancellation of your subscription (which in the case of antivirus software might leave you exposed to viruses whose signatures you haven't downloaded).

Similarly, if you cancel a credit card or it expires, notify any company that bills you automatically so that your account won't be suspended or cancelled.

Look for nonsubscription alternatives: For some programs and services that require a subscription fee, you may be able to find a free alternative that's just as good. Tired of paying the monthly fee for Rhapsody? Try a music-streaming service such as Last.fm or Slacker, both of which offer unlimited tunes free of charge. You can also pick up good freeware alternatives to the likes of Norton AntiVirus and Spyware Doctor (see our recent review of ClamWin Free Antivirus, for example).

Learn how to cancel: Sending a "cancel my subscription" e-mail to a company's customer-service department isn't always enough. You may need to complete an online cancellation form or even call the company directly. Again, a careful read of the terms of service or the company's FAQ page should reveal the proper cancellation method. Savvy consumers will check this out before subscribing.

Get your credit-card company involved: So you've followed the proper cancellation procedures but are still getting billed for service. If you can't resolve the issue through regular customer-service channels, call your credit-card company. It may be possible to block future charges for the subscription. At the very least you can file a dispute claim, which should get the company's attention and help get the subscription cancelled for good.

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